Wednesday 22 January 2020

Mayo must test Rebels' mettle

NFL Division 1 final
Cork v Mayo, Croke Park, 4.0,M Deegan (Laois). * Live TG4(Extra-time if necessary)

LEAGUE finals can carry more risks than riches.

Winners don't allow themselves to regard the success as anything other than a brief confidence boost in case it infects their championship focus, while losers must work out if there's any great significance to the manner of their defeat.

There probably isn't if the difference is small, but, as happened Mayo two years ago, losing by a wide margin can be destructive.

In 2010, Mayo lost to Cork by eight points on April 25; Sligo beat them in the Connacht championship six weeks later and Longford ejected them from the All-Ireland qualifiers on June 26.

In the space of two months, a season that offered real promise had completely disintegrated.

Would Mayo have been better off if they hadn't reached the league final? It's an unanswerable question, but there was a suspicion that the comprehensive defeat by Cork (they out-scored their rivals by 1-8 to 0-2 between the 42nd and 63rd minutes) raised doubts which festered initially before corrupting Mayo's championship ambitions entirely.

Add in their bad experiences against Kerry in the 2004 and 2006 All-Ireland finals and it's easy to understand why there might be a sense of apprehension in the Mayo dressing-room tomorrow.

Still, there's a soothing influence, too, as they recall the efficient manner in which they recovered from a disastrous start against Cork to win last year's All-Ireland quarter-final. It showed that, on their day, Mayo are capable of reaching great heights.

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Now, the target is to revisit those peaks and make a definitive statement about their intentions for the season by winning the league title for the first time since 2001.

They need to win a whole lot more than Cork, who are going for a fourth successive league crown, having won the last two Division 1 titles, plus Division 2 in 2009. A narrow defeat for Cork -- and if they are to lose the margin will surely be small -- wouldn't do them any real damage but a win would have huge significance for Mayo.

They will be the last county to enter the championship race (v Leitrim or London) on June 24, so winning the league would be the ideal way to begin the two-month countdown.

There were elements of Mayo's performance in the first half of the semi-final against Kerry last Sunday week which suggested their game had become more rounded this year, but then they lapsed into a spell of inertia which saw them concede 1-5 without reply in a 13-minute period in the second half.

It was Mayo at their most frustrating and would almost certainly have ended their interest in the league except for Kieran a Donaghy lapse which yielded a goal from a penalty, followed by a stoppage time equaliser from Cillian O'Connor. And while Kerry held the advantage up to the last five minutes of stoppage time, Mayo's defiance enabled them to score 1-1, which clinched a one-point win.

It showed a level of resilience to which they must aspire for the full 70 minutes tomorrow. Even then, it might not be enough to dislodge Cork, who have serious power all over the field. And while Daniel Goulding's absence reduces their scoring options, the siting of Alan Walsh at full-forward (with a licence to roam) is proving an interesting experiment this year.

Whether Conor Counihan persists with it in the championship could well depend on how it works against Ger Cafferkey and Co tomorrow.

Mayo look certain to do a whole lot better than two years ago, but with Cork still smarting over their defeat last August, they look set to become the first county to win the league (Division 1) on three successive years since Kerry completed a four-timer in 1971-72-73-74. However, the damage to Mayo will probably be small enough as to leave no scars for the championship.

Last meeting: Cork 0-14 Mayo 0-13 (NFL, March 25, Castlebar).

Odds: Cork 4/7; Mayo 15/8; draw 15/2.

Verdict -- Cork.

Cork -- A Quirke; R Carey, M Shields, E Cadogan; N O'Leary, G Canty, P Kissane; P O'Neill, A O'Connor; F Goold, P Kelly, P Kerrigan; C O'Neill, A Walsh, D O'Connor.

Mayo -- D Clarke; K Keane, G Cafferkey, K Higgins; L Keegan, D Vaughan, C Boyle; B Moran, J Gibbons; K McLoughlin, A Moran, A Dillon; C Mortimer, C O'Connor, M Conroy.

Martin Breheny

Irish Independent

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